AUGUSTA — Lawmakers were urged Monday to support a bill that would make Maine one of a handful of states to offer pre-kindergarten in every school district.

“Many of us agree at this point that early childhood education plays a critical role in determining where a person ends up in life,” Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, the bill’s sponsor, told the Legislature’s Education Committee.

About 60 percent of Maine school districts now offer some form of pre-kindergarten, many of them part-time programs. State officials said 4,765 children are in pre-kindergarten programs. Almost 14,000 are enrolled in kindergarten.

Vitelli’s bill, L.D.1530, would create a process to establish “universal” pre-kindergarten in Maine by the fall of 2017. Parents would decide whether to put their children in the program.

The bill would create a group to work with the state Department of Education to implement the program, and it would lower the compulsory age for school attendance from 7 to 5, as of July 2016.

No cost projection is in the bill, but the cost of instructors, space, transportation and other services for pre-kindergarten is generally recognized as the biggest hurdle. Vitelli addressed that issue Monday.

“While the costs of universal pre-K are real, under-investing in early childhood education leads to far larger costs down the road in social services, crime, incarceration and unfilled economic potential,” she said.

Universal pre-kindergarten has broad support from groups ranging from teachers to law enforcement. This year, President Obama brought it to the forefront of his education efforts, calling for universal pre-kindergarten and including $75 billion in his proposed federal budget, to be funded by an increase in the federal cigarette tax from $1.01 per pack to $1.95.

The federal funds would be provided to states and distributed to school districts, or to school districts in partnership with other early learning providers, to offer all-day preschool programs. An additional $750 million would be earmarked for grants for pre-kindergarten programs. Maine would receive $5.5 million in the first year of the program, with an initial state match of $500,000.

Maine’s current pre-kindergarten programs are supported by a patchwork of state and federal funds, money from the federal Head Start program, grants, local fundraising, and donations from businesses and residents.

A program in the Bath area’s Regional School Unit 1 is funded with such a blend, said its coordinator, Rosalie Perkins. The Choices program began with 14 students in 2006 and now has 121, out of about 150 potential pre-kindergarten students in the district, she said. The program is available at schools and through local partners such as the YMCA and a day-care provider.

“I would like to urge you today to pass this bill,” Perkins told the committee Monday. “We need more funding, We need a more complete support system.”

A fundraising appeal said it costs $3,060 to support a child through one year of Choices, which runs three half-days per week.

RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel also spoke in favor of the bill, calling for state education money to be reallocated to fund it, even at the expense of other programs.

HIGH-RANKING SUPPORT FOR BILL

Extensive research has documented how early education benefits children, from higher graduation rates and better test scores to lower crime rates.

“We know high-quality early education programs help keep kids out of trouble. The research backs up what law enforcement already knows,” said Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. He said he would like to see more money provided to early education and less to corrections.

Retired Maj. Gen. Bill Libby, former Maine adjutant general, also spoke in support of the bill, describing early education as a national security issue.

“Seventy-five percent of young Americans are not eligible to serve in the military,” he said, because they lack high school diplomas, have criminal records or aren’t physically fit.

In Maine, he said, 16 percent of high school students don’t graduate, and among graduates, 19 percent can’t join the military because of low scores on the basic exam for math and literacy.

ACTING EDUCATION CHIEF HAS DOUBTS

In the 2011-2012 school year, Maine ranked 14th among the states in 4-year-olds’ access to public pre-kindergarten programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

In 2009, the institute said only three states offered “preschool for all” – Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma. Illinois, New York and West Virginia had adopted plans to get to that level.

The institute found that in 2012, programs in Florida and Oklahoma enrolled more than 70 percent of 4-year-olds. Vermont ranked third, with 65 percent.

Maine established its public kindergarten program in 1983. Officials in each district decide whether to offer kindergarten, with school board approval.

In a letter to the Education Committee, acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said the department is working to expand early learning in the state. He said it recently filled its position for an early learning childhood consultant, updated the public preschool Web page and launched a collaboration coaching model for pre-kindergarten programs.

“The department is committed to continuing our work on these issues, and therefore, questions whether the bill is needed to direct that it be done,” he wrote.

The Maine Education Association, the Maine Principals’ Association and the Maine Children’s Alliance support the bill.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com